National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 20, 2003

Catholic and Protestant devotees line up for Communion at Berlin's Lutheran Gethsemane Church may 29.
-- AFP/Thomas Lohnes
More than 2,000 participate in joint Communion service

Another 1,000 protest priest’s suspension

Catholic News Service

A Catholic Mass outside Berlin in which non-Catholics received Communion over church objections drew an overflow crowd of more than 2,000. The crowd was larger than organizers expected; they ran out of Communion under both species before all members of the congregation could receive.

Several hundred people gathered May 29 outside the Lutheran Gethsemane Church in the Berlin suburb of Brenzlauer Berg, listening over loudspeakers to the service inside. The service was not an official component of the ecumenical Kirchentag, or church assembly (see related story). It was promoted as a Catholic Mass during which, according to organizers, all Christians were permitted to take part in Communion.

The service was organized by the Catholic reform groups “We Are Church” and “Church From Below” as a response to the absence of a joint Communion within the Kirchentag’s official program. Kirchentag planners originally intended to host a joint Communion, but dropped the idea following objections from the Catholic hierarchy.

At the start of the service, Austrian Fr. Gotthold Hasenhuettl, 69, the presider, said, “Those who exclude others exclude themselves from the presence of God.”

In a sermon during the service, the Rev. Brigitte Enzner-Probst, a Lutheran theologian, said the debate on joint Communion was not relevant to the evening’s Mass. “The theological libraries do not need to be filled any further. The real issue is that God himself invites us in Christ to the meal of joy. Any differences are a conversation between guests,” she said. “It [intercommunion] is already done in many places in Germany.”

Catholic teaching permits Christians of other denominations to receive the Eucharist only in very limited circumstances, such as “grave necessity.” In his April encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II said regular eucharistic sharing with other Christians is a hope to be prayed for and a goal to work toward, but it is not to be seen as a current acceptable step on the way toward Christian unity.

The Lutheran church regards Lutheran Communion as open to all baptized Christians. On May 31, a Lutheran Communion service was held as part of the Kirchentag, and Catholics were invited to receive.

Outside the Lutheran church, Fr. Guenther Fessler termed the Mass and ecumenical Kirchentag historic -- and said the eucharistic sharing was appropriate. “It’s right that this open Communion should be done in public, and announced, even if the theologians and the people at the head of the church don’t feel they’re able to support it yet,” he said.

The Rev. Friedrich Schorlemmer, pastor of the Wittenberg parish of Martin Luther, said members of both churches need to remember that it is Christ who invites participants to the Eucharist, not church leaders.

“We are not the lords of the table. It is the table of the Lord. We don’t issue the invitation. It is Christ who invites us. So I find that the Catholic leadership is pretending to an authority it doesn’t have if they maintain that this eucharistic hospitality is not possible,” he said.

At least one Catholic prelate gave serious consideration to wielding his ecclesiastical power to penalize Catholics who participated in the shared Eucharist, but decided against it. And another bishop did suspend a priest who received Communion at the Kirchentag.

Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky of Berlin had threatened to penalize Catholics who participated in the Lutheran service. But speaking at a May 29 press conference at the Kirchentag’s press center Sterzinsky said he would have to examine the incident before he decided on any action. “It’s more Jesus-like to go too far on this issue, and out of over-enthusiasm to hold a Communion which is not yet legal than to say, ‘The issue doesn’t interest me,’ ” he told reporters.

But a Bavarian bishop clearly thought otherwise. On June 4, four days after the Kirchentag, Bishop Walter Mixa of Eichstatt suspended a priest of his diocese, Fr. Bernhard Kroll, for receiving Communion during the ecumenical celebration. Mixa suspended Kroll’s priestly faculties and relieved him of his duties as pastor of a parish and as diocesan spiritual adviser to the lay youth organization Catholic Young Community.

The decision was announced after a meeting between Kroll and Mixa, who said later that the priest had taken part in a “prohibited service” and had disobeyed the recent papal encyclical on the issue. The June 4 statement said Kroll would be given “an opportunity to rethink his understanding of his priestly role.”

Four days later, on June 8, about 1,000 supporters and parishioners of Kroll -- about half the number of communicants at the Lutheran church intercommunion the previous week -- protested the priest’s suspension by forming a human chain between Catholic and Lutheran parishes in Bavaria.

The protest followed a Sunday Mass celebrated by a substitute priest. Kroll attended the Mass and sat with the congregation. Choir members boycotted the Mass and joined the demonstration outside. “We refused to perform in protest, so there was no music [at the Mass],” Guenter Greb, the parish organist, told CNS.

Greb said parishioners were shocked by the suspension, believing the priest would receive only a warning. “I believe that there are many priests who do the same, only not with the television cameras around,” he said.

After the June 8 Mass, Kroll was greeted by applause and cheers as he walked along the mile-long chain. Among the banners seen on the demonstration was one that said, “No Brainwashing for Bernhard Kroll.”

Kroll told the news magazine Focus that he didn’t expect such a severe penalty, but was at peace. “I stand up for what I did.” He ruled out the possibility of joining the Lutheran church. “I am … very strongly rooted in the Catholic church,” he said.

The reform groups “We Are Church” and “Church From Below,” which organized the controversial Communion service, issued a joint statement June 8 criticizing Mixa’s suspension of Kroll. “The Roman Catholic church has committed itself to move toward the aim of a eucharistic community,” the statement said. “To impose a punishment which is in effect a professional ban on the individual … for accepting eucharistic hospitality in a Lutheran Reformed service is a serious affront against ecumenism and the Lutheran Reformed church.”

Two days earlier two more traditional Catholic groups, the Forum of German Catholics and the Action Group of Catholic Laity, issued their own statement praising Mixa’s action. “In a time of insecurity, confusion and lack of doctrinal obedience, the bishop of Eisenstatt has taken a brave decision,” they said. They called on Kroll to reconsider his actions, saying, “Through disobedience one cannot carry forward the hopes of ecumenism.”

No church action has yet been taken against Hasenhuettl, who celebrated the May 29 Mass and invited all Christians to receive Communion.

NCR managing editor Pat Morrison also contributed to this story.

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 2003

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